The Crown of a Good Name – Commentary

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by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

There is a wonderful story told about a very wealthy man who passed away and left two wills, one to be opened upon his death and the other to be opened after the period of Shloshim, the 30 days of mourning, had passed.  In the first will, he instructed his children to bury him with his socks on.  When the children went to the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society, and said that their father had left in his will that he wants to be buried with his socks on, the Chevra Kadisha refused because it is against Jewish law which dictates that a person be buried wearing shrouds only.  The matter was brought before Rabbinic authorities and it was ruled that he must be buried without his socks.  The children pleaded that the burial society respect their father’s dying wishes.  Nevertheless, they were told that if the wish expressed in the will is in contravention of halacha, Jewish law, it cannot be respected.  And so he was buried without his socks.

After the 30 days of mourning had passed, they opened the second will, in which the deceased was now allocating the enormous wealth he had accumulated during his life.  He began the will by saying to his children, ”I am sure you found that the Chevra Kadisha would not bury me with my socks on.  I wanted to give you the following message: you can have all the money in the world, but you cannot even take your socks with you when you die.”

This story conveys an important lesson: ultimately, the only things we take with us are our actions, our good deeds, and how we have lived our life.  All of these qualifications can be grouped into one concept, what our Sages call a shem tov, a good name.  A shem tov relates to the totality of the person, what remains long after all else is gone.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot speaks about the concept of crowns.  There is a crown of Torah which refers to Torah learning; there is a crown of kehuna, of priesthood,  which refers to the priests designated to serve in the Temple; and there is a crown of malchut, kingship.  These three crowns represent the three different parts of greatness that are achieved and are symbolized by three different items that were in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which we read about in this week’s portion.  In the previous portions we read about the design, the architecture and the materials that needed to be collected, and in this week’s portion we read about the actual implementation of all those architectural plans.  Among the various items in the Tabernacle there were three particular items of great importance: the Aron ha’Kodesh, the Holy Ark; the Shulchan, the Table of the Showbread; and the Mizbach haZahav, the golden altar for incense.  Each of these items had a golden rim which the Talmud understands to be a crown symbolizing the different components of the people: Torah, priesthood, and kingship.  The gold rim of the Holy Ark which housed the Tablets represents the crown of Torah; the gold rim of the Table represents the crown of kingship; and the gold rim on the golden altar represents the crown of priesthood.

But the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot goes on to say v’keter shem tov oleh al gabeihen the crown of a good name, a shem tov, surpasses them all.  What does this mean?  What is the crown of a good name?

In his commentary on Pirkei Avot the Maharal of Prague explains these crowns.  There are actually four crowns because there is the crown of a good name in addition to the three crowns of Torah, priesthood and kingship.  But the Maharal says that the keter shem tov, the crown of a good name, is actually inclusive of the others.  Thus, a shem tov refers to the totality of what it is to be a human being.  We are not just disparate parts; there is a composite whole that comprises who we are.

In many different places in his philosophical writings the Maharal discusses the concept that a human being is made up of three parts: the physical body, the emotions, and the intellect or the soul/spirit.  To be a good person is to elevate all three dimensions of what it means to be a human being.  The body has to be elevated and sanctified, as do the emotions and the intellect/spirit.

The commandments of the Torah relate to all three dimensions.  There are certain commandments which are physical and are given to us to elevate the body, such as taking a lulav, eating matza or putting on tefillin. There are commandments which relate to the emotions, such as prayer.  And then there are commandments which relate to the spirit, to the intellect, such as the learning of Torah.  Of course, there are many crossovers, and many commandments appeal to more than one dimension or perhaps even to all three.

The Maharal explains that the three crowns represent these three components of a person.  The crown of the priesthood represents the sanctity of the body because the priests in the Temple had that extra Kedushat haGuf, the sanctity of the body.  There are many laws that apply to the kohanim regarding their physical sanctity, for example who they can and cannot marry – laws that do not apply to other people.  The crown of kingship represents the sanctity of the emotions.  Just as a king is the leader of the people, the emotions, says the Maharal, are the leading force within a human being.  We like to think of ourselves as driven by intellect and that it is the most powerful part of us.  But, says the Maharal, this is not true; the emotions are more powerful than the intellect, as they go to the essence of who a person is.  Emotions are so powerful and therefore the crown of kingship represents sanctifying, purifying and uplifting the emotions (for example, through prayer or through working on anger and jealousy and all the emotional aspects of a human being).  The crown of Torah represents the dimension of the intellect, the sanctifying of the human mind and spirit.

After all is said and done, the human being is not physical, emotional or intellectual/spiritual – he is all of these, together.  When we talk about striving for greatness, we are talking about striving for an integrated, holistic greatness.  This, says the Maharal, is encapsulated in what the Mishnah says regarding the fourth crown, that the crown of a good name surpasses all the others.  The crown of a good name is not counted as a separate crown because it includes the other three and symbolizes the composite whole, the totality of a person.  Our goal is to strive for a holistic greatness in all dimensions of our existence.  When this is achieved, a person has fulfilled his purpose in life and has earned the crown of a good name.

There have been many great people who have achieved this holistic greatness of the shem tov.  In this [past] week’s portion we read about such a person, Betzalel, who was the project manager, so to speak, in charge of building the Mishkan.  He had tremendous brilliance and expertise and took all of the materials and constructed the Mishkan in accordance with G-d’s instructions.

The verse in chapter 35 verse 30 states “behold and see that G-d has called on the name of Betzalel.”  The Midrash there asks, what does it mean that G-d has called b’shem Betzalel, the name of Betzalel?  Why does it not simply say G-d has called upon Betzalel?  What does it mean He has called upon “the name” of Betzalel?

The Midrash says that this refers to the fact that Betzalel had a good name.  The Midrash quotes the verse in Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 7 verse 1: tov shem mishemen tov veyom hamavet miyom hivaldo, “a good name is better than good oil, and the day of death [is better] than the day of birth.”  The Talmud interprets this to mean that a good name is better than good oil and a good name on the day of death is better than the day of birth.

A fascinating discussion takes place in the Midrash regarding why it is that the day of death is better than the day of birth, which seems counter to conventional wisdom.  When a baby is born there is great fanfare and celebration; it’s a simcha and everyone is excited.  When a person dies, there is mourning and sadness.  These are natural human emotions; when we welcome a new person into the world there is excitement and when we lose someone close and dear to us, there is sadness.  But at a philosophical level, at an existential level, it’s actually the other way around.

Rabbi Levi, one of the great Talmudic Sages, gives the following analogy by way of explanation: when a ship goes out to sea there is great fanfare.  I am sure that everyone has seen images of the Queen launching a new boat where a bottle of champagne attached to the side of the boat is smashed against the hull and the boat goes out to sea amidst much fanfare, excitement and celebration.  When a boat comes back into dock after it’s been on a trip there is no one there to greet it.  You don’t find the Queen arriving with a whole entourage to greet a boat as it returns to dock.  Why is that?

It’s human nature that when there is something new, there is excitement.  But, says Rabbi Levi, it should in fact be the other way around.  When the boat goes out to sea, it is not a time to celebrate because ahead of that boat is a long journey fraught with storms and great challenges, and there are many things that have to be achieved before the boat has completed its mission.  When it comes back into dock, it has survived the trip, overcome the challenges, the choppy waters and the fierce storms.  It has made it to the other side safely, delivered its cargo and has completed the mission for which it set sail in the first place.  Thus, from a logical/philosophical point of view, we should rather celebrate a ship coming into dock than one going out.

So too with life.  When a human being is born he or she goes out on a journey, sailing off into the waters.  There is an unknown path ahead; will this person live a good life and do the right thing?  Will they be loyal to G-d and His Commandments?  Will they be able to overcome the challenges, the choppy waters and the fierce storms that will inevitably occur during the course of their lifetime?  Hence, says Rabbi Levi, at the time of birth there should be no celebration but great anxiety because we do not know what lies in store; at the time of death, however, there should be no sadness but a sense of achievement.  If a person has lived a good life, if a person has fulfilled the commandments, completed his mission of doing good in the world, has weathered all of the storms and rough waters that are inevitably part of life and has stayed on course, then there is certainly reason for celebration at the conclusion of such a meaningful, purposeful life.

Of course, we are only talking philosophically, because in practice people will celebrate a birth and will mourn at the time of a funeral.  And this is in accordance with what halacha, Jewish law, teaches.  We know that a birth is a time of great joy.  There is a mitzvah to celebrate and we say the blessings of Shehecheyanu and haTov vehaMeitiv to thank G-d for such joyous occasions.  When a person dies there is a mitzvah to mourn; we say Baruch Dayan HaEmet, blessed is The True Judge.  So although Rabbi Levi is saying that, philosophically speaking, it should be the other way around, in practice Jewish law acknowledges human nature; we celebrate a birth and mourn at the time of death.

One of the great halachic authorities, the Radvaz, deals with a question regarding someone who had lost a child and was not mourning.  The father said he was not mourning because this was the hand of G-d and he accepts it.  The Radvaz said that this is the way of cruelty and harshness.  Of course philosophically we understand that whatever happens in this world is part of G-d’s plan but Jewish law commands us to mourn at times of mourning and go through the grieving process, just as we feel joy at joyous occasions.

But we do need to view things from the broader philosophical perspective, and that’s what Rabbi Levi is coming to say.  A good name is achieved when the boat comes into dock at the end of a long and tough journey, a journey where the boat has stayed on course and has done what was needed to be done.  There is a great sense of satisfaction, both for the person nearing the end of his life and looking back on everything he has achieved, as well as those around him who are inspired by a person having lived well and achieved a good name.  He has elevated himself in all dimensions of what it means to be a human being, and has achieved that integrated, holistic goodness. May we all strive to reach such a level.